Program Shows All Can Play Ball

`NICHELLE, run!" cries Phyllis St. Jean, as her 11-year-old daughter saunters to first base, clutching an oversized helmet to her head. She's safe at first.

Crack! goes the bat, and a small boy singles to the pitcher. He runs with the aid of someone's father.

In a while, the bases are loaded. Jason, 6, steps up to the plate with a bat practically bigger than he is. Swings, misses. Swings again, misses. Suspense rises. He makes contact: another single to the adult pitcher.

Nichelle comes home, and the crowd goes wild.

The Challenger Division of the Downey Memorial Little League in Brockton is in high gear this Wednesday afternoon. The game is not played at the level of the Little League's Major League in their World Series championships Aug. 24-29, but the play will be just as intense. Twice a week, from April to June, as many as 55 young people age 6 to 20 diagnosed with mental or physical disabilities or both meet on the fields outside the Joseph H. Downey Community School to play ball.

It's a wonder that these kids are playing Challenger baseball at all, given the program's rocky, seven-year history, which involves a near-lawsuit and a pending Little League-rule complaint.

On the other hand, this growing sport for disabled youths recently has received an unprecedented show of confidence from its parent organization - the national Little League - in the form of a $6 million training center now being built in Connecticut.

You'll find no fathers shouting at the umpire on these Brockton fields. No mothers loudly questioning a third-base call. No players debating strikes and balls. In fact, an observer feels no contention here whatsoever. This is partly because there's no real competition.

Instead, the boys and girls play a therapeutic game designed to improve their self-esteem and physical skills.

"I've heard of a kid in Texas who has gotten out of his wheelchair and is now playing on crutches," says Jim Ferguson, national director of the Challenger program at Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa. "In Connecticut, someone who couldn't jump over a garden hose is now a camp counselor."

Score is kept, after a fashion: A run is a run, a strike is a strike, a ball is a ball. But after three strikes, more tries might be granted. A close "out" may be judged "safe."

"This is a different sort of a program. This is the first opportunity the kids have had to play organized sport, so any bending of the rules is not a problem. Just to be playing is better than nothing," says Mr. Ferguson.

"We adapt around the special needs of the kid," says pitcher Kevin O'Neill.

"It's hard to get the shirts off their backs," says John Reed, assistant district administrator of this District 7 Challenger Division, which covers Brockton to Cape Cod.

"Tonight it's a rout, 12-2, but we try to keep it close," says Mr. O'Neill. A final score is likely to be tied, or with one team winning by a slight margin.

The point is to allow everyone to hit every inning, score runs, and field. The game ends when all have had enough. The ball is awarded to the day's most valuable player; by season's end, every child has one.

If swinging at a pitched ball is too difficult, a child can bat the soft rag ball used in this game from a standing "tee." Most of them swing away, though, with or without the help of an able-bodied friend or adult "buddy." A couple of older children who have trouble walking play with crutches. Wheelchairs are also permitted. Scoring a run is made easier with shorter base paths.

In stark contrast to the harmony on these fields, the Challenger Division's formative years - like its recent history - have been fraught with controversy.

A Connecticut couple, for instance, has filed a complaint with the Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities. The couple alleges that League rules violate the Americans With Disabilities Act because, by prohibiting interdivisional games, the rules ban play between disabled and able-bodied youths. Valerie and Ronald Suhanosky want the League's permission to hold noncompetitive games between Challenger and other Little League players.

Challenger division director Ferguson says a change is unlikely: "In 53 years, we've never allowed crossing divisions. We try to challenge children with children of their own ability, skill level, and age. The kids get their interaction with their buddies."

League officials can't pinpoint where Challenger baseball originated. But early teams are known to have started up here, in Norwich and Bristol, Conn., and in Spring, Texas.

In Brockton, a tee-ball program was conceived in 1985. Play continued unimpeded until 1987, when the Associated Press came to town to do a story, remembers Reed, then-president of the Downey league.

When asked for comments, the national Little League organization denied knowing that disabled youths were playing under League auspices, even though Challenger officials say they submitted all necessary paperwork about the youths' conditions.

In October 1987, Creighton Hale, national Little League president, ordered Reed to cease play immediately or risk losing the Downey league's charter. Dr. Hale cited liability concerns and a lack of specially trained adults.

Reed appealed to US Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts. The Boston law firm of Hale & Dorr became involved, and within a month the senator learned that the local charter would be renewed if officials received training for special-needs youths.

The Challenger Division was chartered in 1989, and a task force created to develop guidelines. Insurance, uniforms, and other necessities are paid with donations from local companies, families, and fund-raisers. The national sponsor is the American Chickle Group, makers of Bubblicious chewing gum.

Little League has lately given the program a tremendous boost. The A. Bartlett Giamatti Little League Training Center, to be completed this April in Bristol, Conn., has been designated the Eastern-region Little League headquarters and home of the Challenger World Series. Ferguson explains that "World Series" is a misnomer: Challenger teams will meet solely for recreational games, not for competition.

The players on the Brockton fields of dreams are ebullient: "You hit, you run, you slide, and you have lots of fun," says nine-year-old Joshua Adams.

Danny Chisam, 24, a former player, is now a coach - 1991 coach of the year, in fact. What coaching advice does Danny give? "Pay attention. Keep the game fun."

His players are listening.

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